How to limit distractions at work

Distractions and change dent productivity – but there are tricks to mitigate staff disruption
Instilling a culture of quality and ensuring a sense of personal responsibility is important.
The pace of change at work can be considerable. Unfamiliar technology, team changes, office relocations or new leadership can mean that employees at all levels are often distracted, unfocused and prone to making mistakes.
Recent research among more than 63,000 employees showed that big changes at work generally lead to 85 per cent more errors made – resulting in a huge waste of money and time. Perhaps surprisingly, big corporate changes such as a new chief executive or a shift in organisational strategy are actually the least distracting for employees, who can still carry on with their day-to-day work.
Instead, the changes with the biggest impact are related to employees’ immediate work environment. These include team changes (such as layoffs, retirements or new hires) or a significant change in workload. Employees in either of these situations are more than 1.5 times more likely to make a mistake – a worrying figure if you consider that it applies to every member of staff.
Clearly, change is inevitable – and often needs to be encouraged. To prevent things going pear-shaped, companies need to instil a stronger culture of quality. This means using leaders to set an example and encouraging employees to take their own initiative to improve standards.

OWN INITIATIVE

Lack of initiative can be intensified if employees aren’t encouraged to speak out. This was shown recently by a case in the US. A seven year old girl received a toy for her birthday and found two pieces were missing from the box.
She drew a picture of herself looking unhappy with her incomplete toy, which her mother then posted on social media. The post quickly went viral, and it eventually transpired that employees at the toy company had noticed that the packaging process sometimes led to missing pieces, but had failed to raise their concerns.
There’s a tricky balance here. Employees should be encouraged to follow the rules almost all of the time, but also be able to recognise when not to – like when there is a potentially major customer issue at stake.

RESPONSIBILITY

This is also about making employees feel personally responsible. At the moment, only 31 per cent of employees are likely to act when presented with “quality improvement” opportunities – even when those opportunities have an obvious, positive return on investment.
On the other hand, more than 70 per cent of employees worry more about the effort required than about the potential benefits gained. Staff need to be aware on a daily basis that quality is a genuine priority for the company. There also needs to be an easy system in place for staff to raise issues – such as process errors or unrealistic targets – before they arise.

AHEAD OF THE GAME

When it comes to times of change, businesses also need to get better at informing employees in advance. It’s not enough to tell the team that someone is leaving on the day they actually leave, or that a new project is starting tomorrow. Not only does this affect morale, but it also causes employees to lose focus and make mistakes.
The cost savings at stake are compelling for firms that can get this balance right. Those with a strong culture of quality make 75 per cent fewer mistakes than their counterparts. For every 5,000 employees, this also means up to $67m (£44m) saved in employee productivity.
So if you’re expecting a big upheaval in the next few months, take heed. If not, remember that you may well be the next one under scrutiny for your quality control.
Ashwin Srinivasan is managing director at consultancy firm CEB.

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